HHI interviewed Dan Chiras, Ph.D. on solar opportunities. Dan Chiras is an internationally known author, educator, consultant, and founder and director of The Evergreen Institute (www.evergreeninstitute.org) in east central Missouri. He is the author of 30 books and hundreds of articles on a wide range of topics, including green building, natural building, residential renewable energy, and sustainability. His most popular books include The Solar House, The Natural House, The Homeowner’s Guide to Renewable Energy, and Power from the Sun. Dan teaches workshops on residential green building, residential renewable energy and other topics, and has consulted on green-built homes throughout North America for the past decade. Dan lives in a highly-efficient, solar- and wind-powered, net zero energy home he built in 2012.
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Q: Can homeowners convert themselves to solar PV, or should they seek help?
A: Installation of solar electric systems requires a fair amount of knowledge and skill so the system is safe, won’t cause roof leaks, and is installed per the National Electric Code. If you want to install your own system, get serious training first or hire someone who is knowledgeable and experienced to help you. If you are going to do it on your own, make sure that’s okay with your building department. Study solar electricity and, by all means, take classes, especially ones on installation. If you’re not trained in or knowledgable about electricity, it’s best to hire a competent, experience installer.
Q: Who should perform a solar site assessment?
A: Solar installers will perform site assessments, but they’re in the business of selling solar systems, so unfortunately, they’re not always objective. They’ll sometimes install a system even if your site is suboptimal. Your best bet is to hire a certified solar PV site assessor. That’s an independent site assessor that will analyze your site and write a thorough report with recommendations, including ideas on ways to reduce energy consumption to save money on your solar electric system, the size of the system you need, where your system should be mounted, an estimate of costs, and the potential economic benefits. You can find a list of certified solar site assessors on the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s website.
Q: If the site or home roof is not optimized for solar, can (a) rack(s) be placed in a location to hold the panels in the right position for optimum solar access?
A: If the roof of your home is not oriented correctly for optimum performance of a solar system, a rack can be installed so the array is correctly oriented. That’s not done very often, but it can be done. It also may not be that pretty. The modules can also be mounted on a rack placed on a garage or another nearby building or even on the ground, provided you have a sunny space. Be sure that the array is unshaded throughout the year and faces true south.
Q: How high can racks be to catch the proper sun?
A: The only requirement for mounting a solar electric system is that it is oriented to true south and in a location that is shade-free year round.
Q: What is the typical ROI time when installing solar?
A: With the 30% federal tax credit, a 6 to 10% annual return on investment on a solar electric system is common.
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